Press "Enter" to skip to content

From picking mica to being a Mukhiya

Last updated on June 25, 2019

IN THE VILLAGES OF JHARKHAND WHERE PEOPLE DON’T EVEN KNOW CHILD LABOUR IS BANNED, KAJAL KUMARI MANAGED TO AVOID THE TRAP AND JOIN A BAL PANCHAYAT

FOR 16-YEAR-old Kajal Kumari, life could not have been more different than when Patriot met her at an event marking World Day Against Child Labour. Just two years ago, she had been liberated from working in Jharkhand’s mica mines, earning just about Rs 100150 per day for the backbreaking labour, carrying weights of 15 kg on her head for three kilometres.

“Everyone in my village was working in the mines”, she tells us, and by everyone she means the children. “Just as after seeing children go to school, the others want to go too, like that, after seeing them go to work at the mines, I wanted to join them.” Thus the normalisation of child labour occurred inadvertently in her village and trickled down to her household as well.

While her parents worked — and still do — at the mica mines, they did not then make enough money even for basic needs. Kumari at the age of 12 believed it would be a good opportunity to earn some money: “I didn’t know much, I was very young. I saw others earning and thought I should too”.

But it was hard work, for other than collecting the mica from the mines she would also have to sometimes chop wood. “Sometimes I would want to cry”… Her life took a different turn in 2016 when a Bal Mitra Gram (BMG) was established in her village situated in Jharkhand’s Domchanch Block of Koderma district.

Bal Mitra Gram is a concept of empowering vulnerable children in a village to help drive change in their area. This is done through Bal Panchayats which have their own elections, and then work closely with Gram Panchayats for the rights of children.

When we met Kumari in Delhi — at an event against child labour, organised by the establishers of BMG: Kailash Satyarthi’s Children Foundation (KSCF) — she talks about the time she first went for the meeting organised at the government school near her home. “I saw that some children who used to study in school were going for an election there. I have seen elections for Mukhiya in Gram Panchayat but never for children, so I thought to go and see.” Kumari at the time did not regularly attend school, making it to class about once a week. “The teacher would ask why we didn’t show up and fine us Rs 1 for every day we didn’t go,” she says.

Back at the school, she was asked by an employee of KSCF if she worked as a labourer, “I told him yes, and also that many of my friends work too. After that I campaigned in my area and became a Mukhiya.” She has used her role to free her friends from child labour and also stop child marriages from taking place in her village. “Parents of child labourers would say that I stopped working only a few days ago, and now wanted their child to stop as well? They said they would not relent”, but she continued having discussions and meetings on child labour with parents.

Kumari points to a vital fact about the prevalence of child labour that many parents don’t know it to be illegal. In her own case, her parents were unaware that child labour was wrong. “When we started explaining to the children and their parents, they slowly understood. Then the next year, and after that, when we had elections, our motive was to bring in those children who were still working”. She regards it as a personal triumph that 4-5 children have been admitted to her village primary school. She has even worked to get the problem of water scarcity resolved. And then excitedly talks about intervening to stop an underage girl from getting married.

“A few days back we came to know of a young girl, about 17, who was being married off. So, I went with the NGO volunteer to speak to the family. The mother was adamant that the marriage would take place, because all the preparations had been made. So, I told them that if they didn’t stop, I would send a complaint letter to the sahib.” Boldly adding: “I’m telling you this with such love and you are not listening, then we will have to do something else.” They have fought a lot with people and families of those they seek to rescue. And this in turn brought threats. “Villagers who were annoyed with the activities of the Bal Panchayat, would go to children’s homes and argue with their parents, even threaten them. My parents were also not convinced about my involvement and that I would campaign for 10 days and then stop.” Around the same time, another marriage was going to take place, which Kumari had no idea about. The family of the girl whose marriage had been stopped wrote a letter to the Block-level official about it — making out the complaint in Kumari’s name, she alleges. “The Block official came and asked about who the bride was. He questioned how I did not know about the marriage which was slated for the 16th. I said, if I had known, then why would I not stop this marriage as well, as I have done others?” In this scenario the silver lining is, as she points out, that families are becoming vigilant, “It’s great that if we stop a marriage, that family then gets another child’s marriage stopped. Soon enough all child marriages will stop. Everyone will become aware.” Their efforts, in a way, germinated and gave fruit to other informed people — even if in this case it was born out of resentment. Kumari has done well for others and herself. She recently passed 10th grade and will now move on to 11th. She told us that she will continue her studies and become a teacher in her Block, as “there’s a dearth of female teachers. I want to become a teacher and work here”.

Her parents now are not struggling as much as they did earlier. While they still work at the mica mines, and still live in a mud house, Kumari’s elder brother now works with the Army and sends some money home. Her younger brother who also worked in the mines with her is now studying in 7th grade.

But there are many more like her still waiting to be freed from labour. Koderma, the district where Kumari hails from, is one of the two regions in the country rich in mica, which is exported. It was once even known as the mica capital of India.

A report titled `Child Labour in Mica Mines of Koderma & Giridih District of Jharkhand’ by Child in Need Institute says that the poor economic condition and scarce livelihood opportunities in the area lead people to mica picking. And children are extensively used in this practice. They mention that at least 18,000 children are involved in mica picking in these two districts in Jharkhand.

Mica is used in electronics, in cars to give that sheen affect and even in glitter make-up. With so much of the mica being supplied from these regions, the possibility of mica sourced from child labour in a consumer’s eye shadow is very high..

SLAVERY STILL WIDESPREAD

Closer to the Capital city a rescue was undertaken on June 20, which saw 77 people, including 47
children rescued from bonded labour. They were working at Jindal BKO brick kiln in Sirsa district of Haryana. The labourers, belonging to the Dalit community, were also physically abused. The rescue was conducted with district officials, along with Jai Bhim Vikas Seva Sansthan. The families were
trafficked from Kashganj, UP in November 2018.